Pakistani-American Atif MoonRises to the Occasion
By Ed Rampell
“Tennis anyone?” is so commonplace an expression that it’s become a cliché. What if you wanted to play -- but were born with Neuroblastoma, a tumor on the spinal cord? Atif Moon, born to Pakistani American parents, came into the world in 1985 with this late stage cancer and was not expected to survive. However, his father and a diverse team of doctors that worked together to rescue the baby, succeeded in eliminating the cancer. By the time Atif was a month old he had undergone three surgeries. Against all odds the infant -- who even then proved to be a scrappy survivor -- lived. However, the condition caused Atif to have scoliosis and to be paralyzed from the waist down. Barring a medical miracle, he’ll have to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
The disease has been just the first of a number of hurdles which the wheelchair-using youth has had to leap over. According to the Mayo Clinic, neuroblastoma “is an uncommon type of cancer” -- but then again, Atif is an uncommon type of individual. The life story of this remarkable lad in the wheelchair inspires one to stand up and cheer. Despite his disability and a series of surgeries, the athletics-minded Atif earned a Master’s degree, interned for the White House and pro-sports teams, worked for The Tonight Show, coped with prejudice, addressed large audiences, won tennis tournaments and accolades on and off the court and is striving to score Paralympic gold.
Independence has been a lifelong challenge and quest for Atif. Ho-hum tasks able-bodied people take for granted can present formidable obstacles for the disabled. Routine chores such as going to the bathroom, changing clothes or just getting from around can loom like the twelve labors of Hercules for the infirm. For instance, due to his curved spine during his childhood Atif began each morning with his parents putting his back brace on.
“The turning point in my life was going to UCLA in 2003,” said Atif. Although he had a license to drive (albeit in a specially equipped vehicle with modified hand controls connected to the foot pedals) when he was 17, the commute from Palos Verdes to the Westside of LA was daunting. The freshman decided to give living on his own in a dorm on campus a shot. His confidence was bolstered by UCLA’s supportive, accommodating disabilities office and accessible campus, with handi-vans for transporting disabled students across the hills from dorms to classrooms on the university’s extensive grounds. At his father’s alma mater Atif majored in business economics and joined the Muslim Students Association, “making cool friends and learning about my religion.”
Atif may have sometimes “felt out of place” because as a Muslim he was expected not to eat pork, pray five times a day and the like, “but I didn’t feel any prejudice, everyone was pretty nice” about practicing his faith. After 9/11, “I didn’t face anything differently from before in terms of discrimination,” says the Californian, who adds that his experience might have been different if he lived in a region where “residents aren’t around Muslims much and they just go by media stereotypes.”
The Los Angeles-born and raised Muslim adds: “Only in America is where we can all practice our religion. There are so many people from different backgrounds practicing religion in their own ways, and we’re fortunate to be able to do that here. Versus other countries where it’s strictly if you practice another religion something can happen to you. So I think it’s great that we have the opportunity to practice our faith in America,” where there is also a greater acceptance of disabled people and accessibility for them, compared to many other countries.
To foster greater awareness and tolerance Atif and Munir co-founded the Center for Global Understanding in 2007. “Its long term goal is to break the stereotypes people have about each other, with different cultures and backgrounds… Just being visible, showing that Muslims are also involved in the community and we’re just Americans, like anyone else,” explains Atif. According to its mission statement CFGU “is a non-profit civic and an educational organization designed to bring people together by developing human capital.”
That same year Atif graduated from UCLA with a BA. He went on to earn a Master’s in sport management in 2011 at Cal State Long Beach; to attend the accelerated 18 month program he commuted from Palos Verdes, driving a modified Honda Element with a ramp on the passenger side that allows him to roll into the vehicle, transfer to the driver’s seat and lock his chair in. Atif’s dream is “to work for a sports organization, a team or network, more on the business-side, like marketing.” Since his boyhood Atif has been an avid fan, with his father taking him to UCLA basketball and football games, Lakers and Kings’ games.
Not all of Atif’s internships have been sports related. From September to December, 2006 he moved to Washington, working for the White House’s Office of Presidential Scheduling, Invitations and Correspondence, located about three blocks from the Executive Mansion. “There was no issue with my being Muslim; everyone was accepting of me, and wanted to learn more about my religion as they didn’t get exposed to Muslims,” asserts Atif, who lived in DuPont Circle in the UCDC Center for University of California students and faculty. “It was scary at first, living so far away from home, not knowing if I’d be able to get around and have access. But there were ramps everywhere, the metro system was excellent. I made good friends. It was a great experience.”
While he enjoyed those brushes with the high and mighty of politics and show biz, sports remains his passion, serving to build him up, body and soul. “Tennis has given me the mental and physical discipline, and it applies to other areas. Just being focused -- when you’re on the court tennis is one of the rare sports where you’re on your own. You’re not allowed to be coached during a match. If it’s singles, it’s just you and your opponent… I love the competition, finding ways to deal with adversity… Exercising in general is good and I love the sense of accomplishment.”
The competitor adds: “My goal is the Paralympics,” the Olympic counterpart for physically disabled athletes, scheduled to take place September 2016 at Rio de Janeiro. In all likelihood, if Atif represents the US at Brazil, he’d be the first Muslim American to do so. Atif previously competed in the B Division of the semi-finals at the US Open in St. Louis and in 2012 won the Jana Hunsaker Memorial Tournament at Flushing Meadows, NY, in both the Men’s B Singles and Doubles categories. Currently ranked in the A Division, Atif is training to move up to the Open Division, the Paralympics’ highest classification for wheelchair tennis.
Wheelchair tennis requires a unique set of skills, as the player must propel the chair using both arms, then swat the ball with the hand holding the racket. In between sets Anthony and Atif good-naturedly banter about the Lakers and Bruins; with eyes closed they sound just like any other jocks. One almost expects them to snap towels at each in the locker room.
Anthony Lara has coached Atif for about five years but has known him since he was a “wide eyed child” on the courts. Since then, “Mr Moon has grown up in so many ways that made me respect him even more, not just as an instructor but as a friend. This young man in what he has accomplished has gone far beyond the tennis court… I’m quite proud of him. He’s one of my top students -- he has goals. In the next four years he wants to represent his country in the Paralympics at Brazil… Atif is very unique, inspirational; he lives life to the fullest, on and off the court.”
In addition to tennis trophies, Anthony is referring to Atif’s other accolades, which include being honored as one of “Ten Outstanding Young Californians 2008” by the California Junior Chamber and being recognized by the US Jaycees as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Americans 2009.” For the latter Atif had to travel to Florida, wear a tuxedo and speak to a crowd of 500 at the black tie awards ceremony; as far as he knows he’s the only Muslim American to win this prize, whose recipients have included Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Elvis. He has also joined Toastmasters in order to master public speaking so he can bring his inspiring story to a wide audience.
A series of surgeries have periodically sidelined Atif, causing him to lose “big mo’.” But he always gets back up to ride in the saddle again, making comebacks on and off the court. The rod put inside of Atif’s back in 1998 broke in mid-2000 and he had another operation that December. In August 2001 it was discovered that the new rod had broken, too, necessitating a lengthy, complex surgical procedure. After losing about a year and a half, later in ’01 Atif was able to get back on the courts and resume exercising. However, in 2008 he started feeling intense pain in his back and side; after being examined by a number of doctors Munir noticed in an X-ray there was a break in the latest rod, too. The Moons set out to find another doctor who came up with a new plan of action and performed another surgery in 2009 that lasted 14 hours and caused a lung to deflate. “Since then, my back has been great, and after a year I started playing tennis again,” says Atif, who has also undergone osteopathic treatment and taken up swimming.
With the unwavering devotion of his dad, step-mom Elena and big brother Amar, Atif has not only survived but thrived.“My dad always taught me to aim high and told me to try new things. He’s always pushed me to do things; he’s been very supportive.” Independence is essential to Atif and sports have played an indispensable role in expanding his self reliance. “I just don’t like relying on other people to do things for me. It’s just a sense of more freedom; feeling good that I don’t need anybody’s help. People with disabilities want to be independent, to be able to do things by themselves. I’ll still ask for help if I need it, but if I can do something I try to do it myself. I also like the challenge of trying to figure things out.” In addition to competing in the Paralympics Atif hopes to marry someday.
Atif means “compassionate.” His will, determination, intellect and spirit are not confined to a wheelchair. He is not a passive victim but rather an active survivor and liver of life. Despite everything that life has thrown at the freewheeling Atif, he remains ready to roll. Atif is enabled by his chair to be ambulatory and do everyday things while a souped-up wheelchair makes it possible to play tennis competitively. Along with the chairs, a customized car, his faith, the love and dedication of family and friends, when combined with his guts, drive and sheer determination, this remarkable young man is not “wheelchair-bound”: He is indeed Atif unbound.
(Ed Rampell is an LA-based film critic/historian and author. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, L.A. Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal)